The Theatre at the Mill's Summer Youth Musical Group tear it up

Oklahoma! starts with a wallop. Backed by the orchestra at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, all actors take a turn across the stage, bringing with them the bales of hay, a mangle and other props that will be used in the first scene.

An old clapboard house already stands, in front of which a woman, well past her bloom, settles with her embroidery. When a farmhand lowers the backcloth and hides the orchestra, the play can begin properly.

It’s a bit of a difficult start, though. The characters are not really introduced, and the dialogue has to be followed for quite a while to find out how they relate to each other, and what their names are.

Oklahoma! is the story of two girls and their two suitors (each! not between them) in a frontier town at the start of the 20th century. Prim Laurey (Gemma McMeel) has to choose between cowboy, Curly McLain (Jamie Johnston) and the surly farm hand, Jud Fry (Turlough Convery), but doesn’t know if she wants either.

Her wide-eyed friend Ado Annie Carnes (Catherine Moore) has the opposite problem: she wants to keep both her lovers, Persian (pronounced 'purrrr-sian') pedlar, Ali Hakim (Ryan Greer) and devoted but dimwitted cowboy, Will Parker (Aaron Kavanagh). Which squire will accompany which dame to the yearly fair?

The red thread of the musical is undoubtedly Laurey's Aunt Eller, the kind of hard-as-nails woman who held the early West together. This woman of a certain age is a challenging role for a teenage actress to pull off, but Megan Mooney nails the mannerisms and clearly has a ball doing it. When Aunt Eller isn’t urging Laurey to get over her disinterest in men, she's luring the same suitors into her own bed.

Basically, the whole musical is about sex. It may seem like racy stuff, but it’s all done in the best possible taste – the original Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical premiered in 1943, taking people’s minds off the war, and was made into a Technicolor spectacle in 1955. Perfectly decent material for the young actors of the Theatre at the Mill's Summer Youth Musical Group to develop their chops on, and have lots of fun with.

The acting, under the direction of Peter Corry, is fair to great, and the musical’s only weaknesses are those inherent in the script. Moving from one girl’s story to another is like switching channels on TV, landing in a comedy while still in the throes of a dramatic moment. It’s to the credit of the actors, though, that these emotions are brought across so effectively that only with reluctance is a particular storyline abandoned.

More problematic is the character of Jud Fry. He is first introduced as the anti-hero, the underdog, who is Curly’s rival for the heart (if not hand) of Laurey. He may be glum, but Convery's solid performance gives the audience ample opportunity to root for him, and with great distress we see his storyline go from bad to worse, without redemption at the close of the musical.

In an imaginative twist, audience favourite Ali Hakim compulsively tries to peddle programmes during the break. A dozen or so more of the cast further break up 'these half-time shenanigans', performing the song 'Green Grow The Lilies' to a delighted crowd. They gab with the audience then bustle them back to their seats. 

Similarly creative are the scene changes, when the stage is darkened except for a few spotlit Rockwell-esque tableaux: a cowboy leans against a wall playing a doleful tune on a harmonica on one side of the stage, another cowboy plays the violin opposite. Their unpolished handling of the instruments, rather than being a bum note, creates the authentic sound of the prairie.

The Oklahoma drawl at first seems strange coming from a local cast, but one quickly gets used to it. Besides, to not use the accents would be stranger. It’s unfortunate, however, that it seems impossible to sing the many songs with accents intact. Most actors, though tuneful enough, adopt 'musical accents'.

All performers, whether lead or ensemble, have something to be proud of, and we can expect to hear more from a good many of them. Their collective achievement is considerable, turning what is essentially Technicolor hokum into engaging mix of drama, comedy and – poor Jud – tragedy.

Oklahoma! runs at the Theatre At The Mill until August 20.